TAMPA, Fla. — Robinson Cano turned the World Baseball Classic into a personal display.
There was a backhanded grab and glove flip to start a double play against Venezuela. There was a home run he crushed off the second deck against Italy. And, in the end, there was an MVP award for helping the Dominican Republic win the international crown.
“He had a great series,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “They were pitching around him and he still hit the ball well.”
None of this is anything new. Cano already has established himself as the top second baseman in the majors during eight seasons in New York. He’s a four-time All-Star with four Silver Slugger Awards, two Gold Gloves and three straight top-6 finishes in the AL MVP race.
But, it was a different Cano at the WBC. Wearing his country’s name on his chest brought out his leadership.
“Robbie not only played well, but also he became the leader of that team,” said Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, who managed the Dominican Republic to an 8-0 run in the tournament. “Robbie led the way. He got everybody together and told them what was the purpose of being there. He had an incredible series with the bat and with the way he handled himself with the team.”
Cano hadn’t shown a vocal side with the Yankees. He didn’t have to, either. Derek Jeter is the captain of a team that features a star-studded cast. There’s Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte.
Cano simply went about his business quietly and did it better than anyone. He’s averaged .314, 29 homers and 102 RBIs over the past four seasons. He’s durable, too. Cano has played at least 159 games six straight years.
But these aren’t the same Bronx Bombers anymore. They’ve been depleted by injuries in spring training. Jeter, Rodriguez, Teixeira and Granderson won’t be in the lineup against Boston on opening day and all of them except Jeter may be out at least a couple more months.
It’s Cano’s team now — and going forward.
“Cano was a great leader in the Classic,” said Felix Lopez, the Yankees’ chief international officer. “Maybe he can be the leader that he was of that team and take us to great things.”
Pena is sure of it.
“I know he could do it,” he said. “He’s starting to grow into that. Sometimes players need time to know what their role is. Definitely I think he’ll be more vocal and he will lead the way.”
Cano is 30, no longer the young kid on the block. He’ll make $15 million in the final year of his contract and is set to become a free agent after the season. A $100-plus million deal awaits him in the near future and there’s no way the Yankees could let him walk.
But Cano will leave it to his agent, Scott Boras, to handle that. He’s focused on the present.
“Hopefully I’ll continue doing the same things I’ve been doing every year, just go out there, play hard and help the team to win games,” Cano said. “Hopefully the guys that we have help us to just stay in the race until we get everybody back.”
Like several of his teammates, Cano has a bitter taste left from last year. The Yankees were swept by Detroit in the AL championship series and the offense struggled from top to bottom. A-Rod was benched, Granderson, Nick Swisher and Russell Martin flopped in crunch time, and Cano was 3 for 40 in the postseason.
“That bad feeling, I still have in my heart from last year,” Cano said. “But I’ve got to put that behind me and just play this year.”
Cano’s impressive performance in the WBC — .469 (15-for-32) with four doubles, two home runs, six RBIs — can be the prelude to another strong season. At the least, it helped erase some of the sting from last October.
“You can’t predict anything in baseball and the WBC and the season are different,” Cano said.
Cano and the Yankees hope the predictions for the season don’t come true. For the first time in years, the Yankees and Red Sox are underdogs. Toronto made a big splash in the winter, adding five All-Stars. Baltimore made the playoffs last year. Tampa Bay has won 90 games three years in a row.
The AL East just might be the toughest division in baseball.
“It’s definitely arguably the toughest,” Granderson said. “Every game when we play each other, no matter if it’s beginning of the season or at the end is going to be an important one. Things definitely will come down to the end of the season and which team can stay healthy the longest and be hot at the right time, and which team will pitch the best and right now all the teams have great pitching. There won’t be an easy game when you face anybody in the American League East.”
Cano is up for the challenge.
“I think Robbie is a great professional, great player and won’t step back in anyway,” Lopez said. “He’s a competitive individual and he gives every at-bat 100 percent no matter what.”
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